These 10 sophomores were some of the highest-graded freshmen in the country last season. Their stellar freshman performances should result in increased playing time as sophomores and a chance at a noticeable increase in production. Ranked in order of their overall freshman grade, fans of the NFL draft will want to keep an eye on these 10 players over the next couple years:
1. Derwin James, S, Florida State
+29.8 overall; No. 1 among returning FBS safeties
James tops this list because he is already the best returning player at his position in all of college football. James is incredibly well-rounded player as indicated by his grades from 2015. His +6.6 coverage grade ranks him No.5 among returning FBS safeties and his +10.1 run defense grade also ranks No.5.
James' ability to rush the passer is what really separates him from the other safeties in the country, as his +13.3 pass rush grade and his 26.3 pass rushing productivity rating both rank No.1 among returning FBS safeties. A dominant player on a premier FBS team, James won’t be hard to miss in 2016 or 2017.
2. Myles Gaskin, RB, Washington
+26.8 overall; No. 5 among returning FBS running backs
Gaskin rushed for 1302 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman. He proved to be one of the more elusive running backs in the country forcing 61 missed tackles and earning a 104.6 elusive rating which ranks No. 9 among returning FBS running backs. Gaskin showed an ability to break tackles with 878 of his rushing yards coming after contact. He also showed a he could create big plays as he had 19 runs of 15 yards or more and a 46.9 breakaway percentage which also ranks No. 9 among returning FBS running backs.
3. Arden Key, DE, Louisiana State
+24.1 overall; No. 20 among returning FBS edge defenders
Key showed himself to be the most productive of all freshmen defensive ends. Key’s +21.2 pass rush grade ranks No. 11 among returning FBS edge defenders and No.1 among all freshman edge players. Key totaled four sacks, 13 hits, 41 hurries and three batted passes on 332 pass rush snaps. Key also added 23 tackles and a +5.8 run defense grade showing that he is a well-rounded defender. Key should be one the nation’s best edge players for years to come.
4. Jake Browning, QB, Washington
+21.6 overall; No. 15 among returning FBS quarterbacks
The second Husky to make the list, Browning could potentially lead the team to a darkhorse College Football Playoff berth this season. Browning was the highest-graded freshman quarterback in 2015 as he outperformed UCLA’s Josh Rosen over the course of the year and was our selection for Al-Freshman team quarterback. He completed 233 of 370 passes (63 percent) for 2,955 yards with 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Browning was one of the more effective deep ball passers in all of FBS last season as his 50.0 percent accuracy on passes targeted 20 yards or more downfield ranks No. 6 among returning FBS quarterbacks. Browning was also very impressive under duress, as he completed 66.7 percent of his passes when pressured which ranks No. 2 among returning FBS quarterbacks.
5. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
+18.1 overall; No. 16 among returning FBS running backs
Barkley rushed for 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns in 2015 with 695 of those yards coming after contact. Barkley was not only difficult to tackle but difficult for defenders to even touch. Barkley forced 67 missed tackles and his 126.7 elusive rating ranks No.1 among returning FBS running backs. Barkley also showed his big-play ability by breaking 21 runs of 15 yards or more and earning a 53.2 breakaway percentage which ranks No. 5 among returning FBS running backs. The Nittany Lions’ offense should heavily rely on Barkley in 2016.
6. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
+16.9 overall; No. 22 among returning FBS quarterbacks
Rosen showed immediately that he was a good starting college quarterback by throwing for 353 yards and three touchdowns in his first game at Virginia. On the season, Rosen completed 292 of 490 passes (59.6 percent) for 3671 yards with 23 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The Bruins are changing their offense to help protect Rosen and prepare him for the NFL. The new Bruins’ offense will more closely resemble an NFL offense with NFL reads it will also focus more on the run game and play-action passes. Rosen excelled in play-action last season completing 61.3 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and only one interception. Rosen will most likely throw less in 2016, but could end up more productive on a per-snap basis due to big plays from timely play-action passes.
7. Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M
+14.5 overall; No. 17 among returning FBS wide receivers
The entire state of Arizona still mourns that the uber-talented Kirk didn’t stay home and play college ball at Arizona State or Arizona. Kirk is an athletic playmaker that is used in multiple ways but is most effective as a slot receiver. In 2015 Kirk caught 80 passes for 1,019 yards and seven touchdowns and a +12.4 receiving grade. 896 of his 1019 yards came from the slot where he can use his quickness and athleticism to get open. Kirk forced 20 missed tackles and his 637 yards after the catch ranks No. 10 among returning FBS wide receivers. He also returned two punts for touchdowns — one of which ironically came against his home-state school Arizona State, making his exodus that much more painful.
8. Trenton Thompson, DT, Georgia
+11.3 overall; No. 63 among returning FBS defensive interior linemen
Thompson only played 264 snaps in 2015 due to a lingering ankle injury but he had some dominant performances as a run defender when he was healthy. Thompson had 20 tackles, four assists and a +10.5 run grade. His 11.5 run stop percentage ranks No. 5 among returning FBS defensive tackles. As a pass rusher Thompson had one sack, one hit, 3 hurries and a +0.1 pass rush grade. Thompson should have a very productive 2016 as a run stopper and could emerge as one of the better defensive tackles in the country if he can improve his pass rush ability.
9. Josh Sweat, DE, Florida State
+10.6 overall; No. 54 among returning FBS edge defenders
Sweat was a highly touted recruit and he didn’t disappoint as a freshman. He is a tremendous athlete who made an immediate impact against the run with 27 tackles and 10 assists and his +10.4 run defense grade ranks No. 19 among returning FBS edge defenders. Sweat wasn’t a very effective pass rusher as a freshman as he only produced two sacks, two hits and 27 hurries on 336 pass rushes for a -1.8 pass rush grade. It is a common developmental trajectory for young defensive linemen to be better run defenders than pass rushers early in their careers and then develop their pass rush ability over time. Look for Sweat to take the next step in 2016 and become a productive edge rusher.
10. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
+8.8 overall; No. 42 among returning FBS wide receivers
Ridley caught 89 passes for 1045 yards and seven touchdowns. His 2.45 yards per route run ranks No. 18 among returning FBS wide receivers. His +11.4 receiving grade ranks No.19 among returning FBS wide receivers. Ridley was dangerous with the ball in his hands in 2015 with 568 yards after the catch and forcing 13 missed tackles. Ridley saw an increase in targets last postseason and that trend should continue into 2016 as Ridley grows into one of the best wide receivers in college football.